The Recession and Hiring at Cornell University

January 11, 2002

At a time when many colleges and universities have slowed their hiring of new faculty members thanks to the recession, the academic side of the house has been spared at Cornell University.

Much to the relief of department heads like Harry E. Shaw, who can still hire the three professors he needs for his English department, a hiring freeze ordered in November by the university's president, Hunter R. Rawlings III, applies to administrative positions only. The freeze will last until at least July 1.

The souring of the national economy, combined with state budget cuts, prompted the freeze, says Carolyn N. Ainslie, the university's vice president for planning and budget. That's because four of Cornell's 10 colleges -- agriculture and life sciences, human ecology, veterinary medicine, and industrial and labor relations -- are also units of the State University of New York.

Although the university did not experience a cut in its state appropriation this academic year, next year it expects to suffer a $7.8-million shortfall, or 5 percent. The shortage of funds, along with a 5-percent decrease in the value of Cornell's endowment -- which as of June 30 stood at $3.2-billion, down from $3.4-billion in the 2000 fiscal year -- led the university to suspend its administrative hires.

And rightfully so, says Mr. Shaw: "The president is committed to maintaining the central mission of the university -- teaching and research -- and he's going to do so. That's the reason he put the freeze where he put it. It makes perfect sense."

Exceptions to the administrative freeze will be granted if positions are fully supported by grants, if they are crucial to a department's work, or if they relate to health or public safety.

Mr. Rawlings has established a Workforce Planning Team -- made up of Ms. Ainslie, three academic deans, and two vice presidents -- to review administrative functions across the university and ultimately decide when the freeze should end. The team's review, Ms. Ainslie says, could take anywhere from eight months to two years.

Mary G. Opperman, vice president for human resources, says working under the freeze has been a challenge. "You have to look at what you're doing and whether you have people dispatched to the most important work," she says. "If you do and can't get essential work done without a position you can ask for an exception."

Ms. Opperman says she has two openings in her department now but has been granted permission to fill one of them, for a programmer analyst. That job, she says, is crucial to her office because "people sort of like to be paid accurately," and because whoever fills the position will help upgrade and maintain the university's personnel system.

Her department and others like it on campus are taking the freeze seriously, Ms. Opperman says: "The goal is to use openings that come up creatively so we can find ways to save money without impacting current staff. I applaud that. I know it's difficult but a lot more humane than having to let somebody go."

On the academic side of the house, however, it's business as usual. "National searches for faculty members are still going on and are a very high priority," Ms. Ainslie says. "We want to make sure we preserve the academic mission. That's why we're looking at other aspects of our budget."

Biddy Martin, the university's provost, says she doesn't expect the hiring freeze to affect academic departments at all. But "if we had to extend the freeze beyond July 1, 2002, it's conceivable we'd want to slow down some academic initiatives."

So far the only sign that faculty members have seen of the downturn in the university's finances has been an e-mail message that the administration sent to everyone on the campus reminding them to conserve energy and save the institution money by turning off lights in their classrooms and computers in their offices before the winter break.

Ms. Martin says faculty members are worried that the functioning of academic programs might be affected by the administrative freeze.

Mr. Shaw says his department of 50 faculty members and 6 administrative-staff members is already a "lean operation." His staff members have not been affected by the hiring freeze. "It's not a problem for us now and is unlikely to be a problem for us in the near future because we have a stable staff, and they're not going to take positions away from us."


All this week the Career Network looks at how the recession is affecting hiring at different types of colleges.